Whether a person can be truly and wholly selfless is a question that has afflicted society for a great period of time. Living on this planet for seventeen years, I have, over time, come to the conclusion that very few people are actually genuine in their benevolent endeavors. In fact, being a figure in the school system, one is essentially forced into years of volunteering for hour logs and college scholarships which then serve themselves more than any deprived individual. Philanthropy for personal gain is, in itself, a hypocritical idea — yet, one that we all participate in. I will not claim innocence when I purposefully schedule four volunteer sessions a month for the sake of meeting a requirement. But, being honestly philanthropic, according to many, is not moving wheelchairs at the local hospital for three hours or throwing money at some gala fundraiser. I ask those people then… what does it mean to be philanthropic, and how can I actually make a difference when someone is not requesting a monthly hour log?
Being altruistic is tough because there is not one definition of it. According to Merriam-Webster, altruism is defined as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”. It is a simple enough explanation, and by its definition, most people would probably consider themselves to be altruists. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I have, in my life, ever done something absolutely unselfish; the kind of thing I can look back on to think “wow, I really changed that person’s life”. In the age of social media and everlasting competition, it seems that any selfless act done is done to prove to others how selfless we really are. Those who share social issues on their Instagram stories are criticized for not doing enough, and those who don’t are criticized for not caring enough. When philanthropy is just publicity, everyone is constantly caught between doing the wrong thing and doing nothing at all.
As I previously discussed, growing up in a public school environment has taught me a lot about contributing to a community. In middle school, I volunteered at my local public library. When I moved up to high school, I began working with Empath Health and Suncoast Hospice as part of their teen volunteer program. And, most recently, for my International Baccalaureate CAS project, I partnered with the organization Akshaya Patra to create a cookbook and raise funds for their mid-day meal program. I always believed that because these duties were assigned to me, they did not count. What does being philanthropic mean if it is not done willingly? Turns out, it means a lot.
Looking back on the past four years, I finally give myself credit for what I have done and the difference I have made in the lives of others. Of course, some will say that my time spent stuffing oxygen tank bags for Hospice was a waste or that writing letters to a war veteran did not make a significant difference. People at school will buy my Akshaya Patra cookbook to support me, in hopes that I will also support their projects, and that is the pattern of philanthropy. The truth is that generosity is not one unblemished face of selflessness. It does not encompass only the things we do for others without personal gain. Rather, it is about how we pass on the small bits of hidden integrity in the world. It is all the little things we do, as well as the big things, that add up to make an impact. All the times you think did not make a difference in someone’s life, probably did. The letter I wrote to congress about polar bear conservation, the petitions I signed for NEDA, and even the times I just stayed up late talking to a friend that was going through a hard time. It all made an impact, just to varying degrees.
As I exit high school this year, I do worry about whether I will be able to keep up with community service and philanthropy. But, I guess the years of being assigned volunteer work had a greater purpose than serving the community only for the moment; it looked to impart upon high school students a deeper understanding of their contribution and an intrinsic purpose to add something to the world. I now know that there is always something to give, whether it be money, or time, or even a listening ear. Leaving home and expanding my world beyond its current confines will not limit my opportunity to make an impact, it will only allow it to grow further. No matter where you may end up, never underestimate the power of a simple helping hand. While no action may be entirely altruistic, it is neither too insignificant. It is our time to question what we can do for society and combine our efforts toward becoming a constructive and fulfilled generation.
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” -Pablo Picasso
PLEASE READ: If you have made it this far, I thank you for taking an interest in my writing and thoughts on the world. I am currently still trying to sell my cookbooks as a fundraiser for the organization Akshaya Patra. You can read more about all the incredible work they do for underserved school communities in India here. If you would like to purchase one of the cookbooks I created, please visit this Google Form Order. All proceeds will be donated to Akshaya Patra, and your contribution will help provide a hot school meal for a child in need.